Years before the Vega adventures began I had another interesting time walking across the Sahara with a Tuareg caravan. Here is a sneak peek at that adventure.
“While explaining the intricacies of riding a camel Asmun sent two young boys scurrying for our saddles. They eventually returned loaded with the required paraphernalia. While Asmun continued his dissertation on camels, the boys set about saddling our beasts.
I am certain one of Quasimodo’s sadistically inclined relatives, or a frustrated eunuch with nothing left to lose, spent ages discovering such an uncomfortable position, then devised the three-pronged camel saddle to make it even worse. Even with You Dong meekly couched on the sand, her back was a good one-and-a-half metres above ground level. A single stirrup dangled from the left side of her saddle, useless while riding, but damned helpful for mounting. Asmun had me practice clambering aboard and sitting the saddle several times.
Perhaps I should mention, you always approach a camel from the side and never the front or back. The truth is, camels are very much like their Tuareg riders. No one has ever successfully domesticated them in any real sense of the word. Both are dangerously vindictive. And if you offend them in any way, they will seek revenge.
Being experts at nibbling, sneezing, and spitting, I doubt hitting a fly on the wing at twenty paces with a well-chewed glob of yesterday’s lunch would challenge the average camel in the least. I’ll leave the gooey green result of a well-aimed camel sneeze to your imagination.
The trick is, place your left foot in the stirrup, then in one fluid motion board the beast. Now here comes the hard part. If you plan on children at any time in the future, then do not swing a leg over the way you would on a horse. Instead, as your right leg raises swing it forward, wrapping it around the saddlebow while your body follows on. By then you should be firmly in the saddle, securely anchored to the saddlebow. Which is when you should tense every muscle in your body and search for a soft, sandy landing place. Because, from that moment on the motley beast will do everything possible to have you off its back and impaled on a camel thorn bush by preference.
As you sit with your right leg hooked around the saddlebow, the left knee crosses your right ankle locking you more or less in place. In another position, you lock a leg around the saddle horn and rest both feet against the camel’s neck.
I can’t over emphasize mounting in one smooth rapid motion. Through the ages, camels have developed the art of tilting their hump just as a rider reaches the critical point while swinging aboard. The results can be rather comical, at least to a camel. While Asmun explained this for his circumspect student, You Dong studiously chewed her cud, diligently ignoring us both.
During the course of my instruction, Asmun gave me a metre-long stick slightly thicker than my thumb. The stick, he explained, is what controls the camel. A single line to the creature’s muzzle, resembling the reins on a horse, is only there for additional steering.
When the big moment arrived, I scrambled aboard, locked my legs in place, and tapped You Dong twice behind the right ear with my stick. The landscape lurched violently in several directions simultaneously as the beast ponderously jacked herself into a standing position.
Like all camels, You Dong stood hind legs first. I leaned back in the saddle, then forward, hanging on for dear life as she rose on her front legs, lurching me forward hard against the saddle fork. She then gracefully turned her head and tried to bite me. Thankfully, Asmun had covered that eventuality in his lessons. I gave the brute a swift swat between the ears, which generated a minor dust cloud and worked wonders for her attitude.
While I was busy checking the family jewels were still intact and coming to terms with what can best be described as an ‘awkward situation’, Asmun approached his camel, leaped aboard, and had the thing standing in one fluid motion. With a big grin, he said, ‘Now we go. Remember, to stop you must yell, “Hut, hut, hut,” and do not pull its head up with the rope.’
Sitting several metres above ground level, dressed in the flowing robes and turban of a desert dweller, I gazed over the assembled host that would eventually form our caravan. On one side children played football with a bundle of rags held together by string. Several women busied themselves around a fire, while in the distance a donkey brayed.
Between lingering effects brought on by the heady contents in Ali’s truck, which, by the way, he sold in the local souk – which is what the Moroccans call a market – and a parting pull on Asulil’s water pipe, my Ali Baba Arabian fantasies were in overdrive. That is, until Asmun set out and You Dong followed. Her sudden stagger returned me to a reality almost as fantastic as my illusion of tasting colours and hearing smells.
We wove our way through the encampment at a lumbering gate, emerging without incident on an open plain dotted here and there with sickly shrubs. On our left, a dust devil danced among the scrubland bushes a mile or so away, its tornado like column a sinuous undulation in the golden afternoon light. As You Dong trudged along, I did my best, repeating Asmun’s injunction to ‘sway with the gliding motion’. An effort which proved as hopeless as befriending that cantankerous camel.
After months unwillingly spent studying the subject, I can assure you camels don’t walk or even plod. What they do is stumble forward in a manner intended to convince any sane anatomist they have twice the normal number of articulated leg joints, and those made entirely of rubber. No wonder the mad creatures are at home in the sand. The damn things have feet the size of soup plates that make a hypnotic ‘kerplop – kerplop’ sound with every step. Each stride produces a dusty waft.
I was just coming to terms with You Dong’s lurching, rocking, rolling, gate when Asmun suggested I take a tour on my own. Since up until then my camel adventure had progressed smoothly, I tapped You Dong behind the ears, raising a swirl of aromatic dust, and gave the rope a slight tug in the direction of an open space on our left. You Dong turned, diligently lumbering in that kidney-rattling stagger she could maintain for days.
I was impressed with myself. After all, the whole thing seemed easy enough. So, I tapped a little harder and gave the rope a few more tugs. You Dong increased her speed. If horses have gaits, then camels must have barn doors. The miserable creatures randomly toss out a foot then stumble onward, while the other three feet scramble to keep up. The sensation is an arrhythmic lumbering pace, as uncomfortable as any you can imagine.
A camel rider is constantly pitching and rolling like a small ship in rough seas, except respectable boats don’t lurch between improbable positions. I think it safe to say, the only time backing a camel is comfortable is when the blasted thing is standing still—with me relaxing under a date palm in the next county.
With Asmun calling encouragement, I tapped You Dong again, making the throaty clicking noise Asmun taught me. What that noise means in camel I doubt anyone will ever know but the effect was instantaneous. You Dong suddenly stretched out and began galloping like a demented mount determined to win the derby stakes.
Camels run by throwing their forefeet as far in front as possible, then scrambling to catch up. What with the horizon jerking backwards and forwards and up and down, how any creature on four legs can maintain such a jolting gate and not tie its own legs in knots is still a mystery.
Riding a galloping camel without concentrating on your kidneys and liver, mostly in hopes they will survive the experience and not be turned to mush or bashed out your backside, is impossible. Surfing a tidal wave of panic, I smacked You Dong a few times between the ears and screamed, ‘Hut, hut, hut’ with gusto. The jolting became a permanent state of jolt as You Dong found several extra knees and accelerated, trailing a stream of heart felt curses behind her.
The stony ground and camel thorn bushes became a blur as we careened over the open plain, with me hanging on for dear life screaming, ‘Hut, Hut, Hut,’ slacking the rope and flailing away on the monstrous creature’s head with my stick. Nothing worked. The damn thing just went faster, all the while curving left on a route taking us back toward the camp.
That ride was among the worst I have ever experienced. For the next few minutes, for I have no idea how long it lasted, with robes flapping in complete disorder and my poorly tied turban covering one eye, I was jolted pillar-to-post holding on with everything I could find, including teeth and toes, while being jostled through the most improbable positions imaginable. At one point, I swear You Dong shoved one foot in a hole, and using that as a pivot proceeded to spin as fast as she could. Thankfully, I had my legs tightly wrapped around her neck, dangling with both hands from the saddle prong when it happened.
With You Dong determined to have me off, and me just as determined to stay on, I jostled through every conceivable position until I found myself facing backwards, hanging on the saddle back with one hand and You Dong’s tail with the other. The stick shoved tightly between my teeth must have been a blessing for the next tribe over, who no longer heard me passionately howling for salvation.
How I stayed on board is among life’s great mysteries. But stay on I did — somehow. Luckily for me, You Dong eventually slowed to a statelier, if the term is ever applicable to a camel, pace.
Shaken, yet miraculously still alive, I adjusted my turban, while steering You Dong back to where Asmun, and by then half the caravan, stood watching my antics. The first thing I noticed was Asmun bent double laughing so hard I thought he would burst a gut. Between bouts of laughter and trying to catch his breath, Asmun said, ‘I knew you make me laugh, you funny man. When you sit backward everyone much impressed. When you pull camel’s tail and scream, “Hut, Hut, Hut,” I think maybe I die laughing so hard.’
Later I learned what really happened. Asmun played a little joke on the greenhorn, and rather than fall and break a few bones, which everyone would have found amusing, I transformed the whole exhibition in to the funniest show for ages. Some people are easily amused, as you may have noticed. You see, ‘Hut, hut, hut’ is the way you tell a camel to accelerate. When combined with a slack rope and a few swats on the head, it means run like the devil is chasing your sorry carcass, which is exactly what You Dong did.
At least as far as the men were concerned, the fact I stayed on board, went along with the joke, and converted it to an amusing spectacle put me across an invisible hurdle. They thought I was showing off rather than desperately avoiding multiple impalement in the nearest camel thorn bush. Being in English, one wag even mistook my frantic screams for help as an esoteric western battle cry.